A New Environmental Deal for the 21st Century

Susan George Globalizations, Volume 5, Issue March 2008

When the editor of Globalizations asked me for a short comment on global warming/climate change, my first instinct was to ask myself when I had first dealt with the question. The answer: 1989, in a chapter I contributed to Global Warming: The Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press, 1990). Nearly all the other contributors were scientists and, after a brief re-examination of the contents, I can vouch that the whole question was already perfectly well laid out in the Greenpeace book; apart from a detail here or there, one needn’t change a line.

The moral of this brief story is, first, we knew everything we needed to know 20 years ago and, second, it takes forever to put even the gravest, most life-challenging issues on the political agenda.

But climate change has finally bridged the critical awareness gap, it is firmly on the agenda and now another home truth comes into play: people are way ahead of their governments. At least in Europe, large numbers of people are genuinely alarmed; many seem prepared to change their personal behaviour in order to save the planet. The tragedy is that even with all the individual good will in the world, it will never be enough. Without stringent government regulations, targeted spending and laws to prevent our downfall, this sweet earth will undergo runaway greenhouse effects and in the fullness of time might come to resemble Venus, except that no humans or other life will be around to observe the transformation.

Pray for petroleum reserves to be grossly overestimated, for all future prospecting to fail, for oil at $100 a barrel because otherwise, the market will continue to make the decisions, the wrong ones. Since the market operates in the eternal present, because standard, neo-classical economics is incapable of calculating the true cost of anything, we, in turn, shall continue to limp along in our fool’s paradise until doomsday, which will not be long in coming. Since we have spent the past 30 years ‘freeing up’ the market and everywhere reducing the capacity of the State to intervene, it is hard to be optimistic.

But we must try, and just as we knew what was wrong 20 years ago, so today we know what must be done. Knowing what to do is at least half the battle; we are not the 14th century victims of plague, who had only the wrath of God to fall back on to explain their plight. The knowledge that we are capable of destroying our physical base is not the same as resignation or panic. We must, nonetheless, stand firm in that knowledge.

The technical measures needed are well-known. Alternative sources of energy, self-sufficient buildings, automobiles made of materials ten times lighter with motors constructed on different principles, integrated industrial systems using the waste of one factory as the feedstock of another—these and more have been described in detail by authors like Ernst-Ulrich von Weiszacher (Wuppertal Institute) or Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute). The prototypes exist, in some cases production is already mainstreamed, the new technologies work, at least at small scales. This is not the place for a catalogue. But these solutions are still market-dependent, that is, cost-dependent. Only governments can ease the necessary passages and force compliance with strict rules—for the construction, the automotive, the chemical, the plastics industries.

They will not do so unless citizens insist upon it, and citizens will not insist forcefully enough unless they are reasonably sure their standards of living can be maintained more or less as they are. This means in turn that governments must target spending towards reducing the economic pain of transition and scale up the known solutions while making a huge research effort to seek new ones. If solar panels or wave power machines or cars made from carbon remain, for the moment, more ‘expensive’ (in the eternal present of the market) than oil, then States will have to equalise the costs in a new kind of ecological Keynesianism. We need a New Environmental Deal for the 21st century.

We also need a global State, but history has not yet cooked such a dish (and for other reasons this is just as well), so we must try to solve the global problem par excellence with the national, political and cultural tools we have to hand. Holding back climate change means getting transnational corporations and international institutions under political control; it means constant citizen vigilance so that governments know they will be thrown out of office if they refuse or fail to cooperate.

If we try to fight against nature, nature will win, she always has. Most species live for around ten million years; 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. But normally, we should have another eight million years or so to go. Let us try not to be the first species to programme its own destruction, without waiting for nature to turn us in for a new and better model.

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